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USDA unveils new school lunch rules
[January 14, 2011]

USDA unveils new school lunch rules

Jan 14, 2011 (Bristol Herald Courier - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) -- Highlights of new nutrition rules: According to the Associated Press, the new school nutrition guidelines announced Thursday would: --Establish the first calorie limits for school meals.

--Gradually reduce the amount of sodium in the meals over 10 years --Ban most trans fats.

--Require more servings of fruits and vegetables.

--Require all milk served to be low fat or nonfat, and require all flavored milks to be nonfat.

--Incrementally increase the amount of whole grains served, eventually requiring most grains to be whole grains.

--Improve school breakfasts by requiring schools to serve a grain and a protein, instead of one or the other.

The directors of two local school lunch programs said they saw a series of proposed federal nutritional guidelines coming long before the official announcement and have already taken steps to meet the new requirements before they go into effect this fall.

"For us, its going to mean few actual changes because we've already gone ahead and done most of that," said Lisa Holt, nutrition manager for the Sullivan County, Tenn., school system.

U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack unveiled Thursday what he called a series of "fundamental changes" his agency plans to make to the country's school nutrition program. The changes are designed to stem the effects of childhood obesity.

"Nearly one-third of school children are obese or at risk of being obese," Vilsack said, adding that 32 million children across the country eat at least one school-provided meal each day they have class. "It's an issue that needs to be addressed." Vilsack said failing to immediately address the country's childhood obesity epidemic and the health conditions it could lead to, such as high blood pressure, Type II diabetes, and high cholesterol, could result in more than $334 billion worth of new health care expenses by 2012. The secretary also cited a study by Mission Readiness, a nonprofit group led by retired military leaders, that found 27 percent of Americans between the ages of 17 and 24 weigh more than what the current military guidelines allow and are essentially "too fat to fight." The proposed changes, marking the first time the federal government has significantly altered nutritional guidelines for school lunches in 15 years, will become effective this fall following a three-month public comment period.

The guidelines seek to address the country's obesity epidemic by limiting the amount of calories and sodium contained in each meal that schools serve to students. The guidelines also require schools to serve a greater number and variety of fresh fruits and vegetables, feed the students more whole grains, and ban schools from serving milk that has a fat content higher than 1 percent.

"This is stuff that we've been doing for at least the past two years," said Frances Ivery, the Washington County, Va., school system's nutrition programs manager. "These are things that we've been doing all along in anticipation of the new guidelines." Like Holt, Ivery said her school system was able to get ahead of the curve and come into compliance with many of the new nutrition guidelines before they were announced. For instance, Washington County started serving only 1 percent and non-fat milk two years ago, Ivery said, while Sullivan County made that switch at the start of the current school year.

But taking these steps has proven to be costly, Ivery said, noting that her school system just spent $10,000 on a combination oven installed at Abingdon High School that can both steam and bake foods the cafeteria's staff prepares for its meals. School cafeterias likely will need this type of equipment, which can easily cost $15,000 to $20,000 a piece, as they make the switch from serving foods that are boiled and fried to foods that are prepared using healthier cooking methods.

Recognizing the financial burden the nutrition guidelines can place on a school system, in terms of increased equipment, personnel and ingredient costs, Vilsack said his agency has set aside more than $380 million of additional nutrition program funding each year for schools that comply with the new rules.

That funding increase mainly comes in the form of a 6 cent per meal increase in the amount of money the government pays schools through its free- and reduced-price lunch program, which helps students from low-income families across the country eat the meals served in their cafeteria. The government currently pays schools in the 48 contiguous states between $2.32 and $2.89 for each lunch they serve through the program and $1.18 and $1.76 for each breakfast.

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